Warriors glad to be playing at home
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
The last time the University of Hawai'i men's volleyball team played a home match Feb. 22 the Winter Olympics were still being staged, KHON had the No. 1 newscast at 10 p.m. and drivers were grumbling about van ... well, OK, some things have not changed much.
But the Warriors, who play host to UC Irvine tonight and tomorrow, appear to be different following three trips to the Mainland for eight road matches in March.
"Our team is a little bit punchy," UH coach Mike Wilton said. "I think we've been on one too many road trips in too short a time. I think when you go back and forth on planes as much as we have lately, it takes its toll. It's a lot of traveling."
Tall players pretzel-fitted into coach seats have left many of the players with sore backs and necks. Middle blocker Dejan Miladinovic practiced lightly the past two days because of back spasms. Wilton said his players also were affected by playing on wood floors. The Stan Sheriff Center uses the spongy Taraflex surface.
"I'll be ready for the match," Miladinovic said, "because the adrenaline will kick in."
The Warriors practiced in the morning this week, giving them the rest of the day to enjoy spring break, and Wilton's wife prepared a pizza party after yesterday's practice to celebrate trainer Michelle Landis' birthday. Wilton said a team excursion to the beach is scheduled for Monday.
For now, the Warriors are focused on UC Irvine, which is a half-game behind eighth-place Long Beach State in the battle for the final spot in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs. The Anteaters are 11-12 overall and 5-11 in the MPSF; UH, which already has clinched a playoff spot is 15-6 and 12-4.
In January, the Anteaters defeated MPSF co-leader Pepperdine, which beat UH twice last week, and with a revised lineup lost in five games to top-ranked UCLA last week.
"We've been moving our whole team around," said Irvine coach Charlie Brande, a former assistant with the UH men's and women's volleyball teams. "We haven't found the six or seven guys. We've done things. I'm a very firm believer that your chemistry must be better than your athleticism. This year, we've been searching for the right lineup."
Against UCLA, Brande moved outside hitter Monte Tucker, who is fourth on the team with 128 kills, to libero. Spencer Benus, who is two inches taller than 6-3 Tucker, now starts at outside hitter.
Still, the offense revolves around 6-foot-8 middle blocker Erick Helenihi, who leads the Anteaters with 4.23 kills and 8.2 swings per game.
"We'll probably try to track him with two blockers whenever he has an opportunity to swing on a perfect pass," Miladinovic said. "But it's very hard to block him because he hits really high. We'll try to stop him as much as we can."
The best defense is an accurate serve, and the Warriors have worked extra on their serve placements this week.
"We want to serve tough, make them scramble, so we won't have to worry about their middle so much," UH middle blocker Brian Nordberg said.
The Warriors' final six matches are at home. They play UCLA next week and defending national champion Brigham Young the following week. The Warriors are 2 1/2 games behind UCLA and Pepperdine. The top four MPSF teams serve as first-round hosts; the highest remaining seed is host to the semifinals and championship match.
"This series is definitely critical, not only for seeding but more so for momentum," Nordberg said. "We're coming off two losses. It's important to pick up the momentum at the end of the season."
Said libero Vernon Podlewski: "We wanted tough matches, we wanted competition, so here we go. We have six tough matches."